Building a Global Online Strategy

The World is flat. If you have a website or run an online business, it is global by definition. As a business grows it starts thinking about how to optimize their online presence to better serve customers around the world.

Photo courtesy of wilmack via Creative Commons

The way it usually works is that a subsidiary uses part of its marketing budget to create a local site and local content. Over time this problem gets bigger and bigger, often ending up with multiple websites with no coherent strategy. The result is uncoordinated infrastructure investment efforts, inconsistent experience for customers, back-end integration challenges, privacy governance problems and continued investment in localization.

What is missing is a global online strategy. While building a global online strategy must be done in a way that is relevant to your own business, I want to offer a few ideas or best practices that could help:

1. A single online infrastructure and one global user experience.

In a world of global consumers, political boundaries and languages are becoming somewhat irrelevant (not totally, of course). Customers travel, migrate, commute and deliver services globally. B2B companies have subsidiaries and regional offices in multiple countries. Privacy, compliance and user experience governance is better done centrally. With all this under consideration, it makes more sense to have a single, adaptable, global site.

This means a single global infrastructure that allows you to have a single strategy, one investment and consistency across regions on aspects such as your content delivery network strategy, PCI/HIPAA compliance, video management platform, personalization, back-end/ERP integration, privacy compliance, CRM strategy, URL shortening, social strategy, etc..

It also means having a central point of view and strategy for user experience: registration, social integration, newsletter subscriptions, profile and personalization, order history, and other preferences.

Web infrastructure is not cheap: content management systems can be expensive, especially if you are buying one for every region. Implementation and maintenance (people) costs are usually about 10x the cost of the software, which means using Open Source instead of a commercial app can have marginal cost savings benefit, sometimes negative if open source requires more customization and maintenance. Maintaining multiple content management systems can get quite complex, especially when you consider content federation, syndication, localization and content lifecycle.

2. Define your language translation strategy and priorities

The two key pieces of information you need are country (for shipping as well as to present local stores, events, promotions, etc,) and language – these should be ideally two separate preferences.

Plan your user experience to allows international visitors to find their locale (country and language) quickly and can change their preferences easily. Their current IP address should be used for suggestions only – you don’t want all your sites to switch to Japanese if you travel to Tokyo for a week.

The first decision is to decide what languages require support and in wat priorities based on your business strategy. Start by understanding the revenue contribution from each country, primary languages – and most importantly, what countries and customer profiles require a localized online experience.

It could be that your target customer in a particular country actually prefers English content. This is common for technology buyers who perceive (correctly) that English content is more compete, more up to date and more accurate (free from translation mistakes).  It could also be that your buyer is more comfortable in English but the actual end users require localized language. It could be that the culture in a particular culture requires localization as a business courtesy and a sign that you care for customers in that country and respect their nationality.

Once you understand priorities, a site map should be used to determine what content needs to be translated. Some companies translate only the top one or two levels on their website, others only pre-sales content, others a mix based on more complex decision-making. A best practice I have observed when one the top-level of content is translated is that at content that is not localized is still made available but there is a mark on the link (as simple as an asterisk) that indicates the content behind that link is in English. Once you have this, you should start forming an idea of the amount of content required to support each additional language.

The next step is to decide on your localization process. It can be as sophisticated as manual, outsourced translation by native speakers to using Google translate. A balanced approach could use assisted translation: machine translation that is reviewed by translators for accuracy. Using a standard dictionary for consistency of use of technical terms, informal language expressions and phrases is a best practice here.

A very important, and often overlooked, part of this process is to think about how will you update content. This means having a strategy not only to translate the initial set of content, but also considering ongoing process to update content based on what changes in the original site. It also means building the dependencies between localized and original content in case the original content is retired, updated or deleted (i.e. for legal reasons).

3. True internationalization requires taking into account Culture

Building a global online presence is tricky because of all the little things that change from culture to culture. Certain colors, terms or images may be offensive in a particular culture. Certain words change meaning from country to country. There are historic cultural sensitivities that impact, for example, using Spanish from Spain in Latin America. Religion, business practice, privacy and many other factors come into play.

For large organizations. it is useful to establish a central location (i.e. a Wiki) with guidelines and tips to make content more culturally sensitive. This means, what colors to avoid, what tone to use when addressing specific cultures, what type of advertising or messages could be considered inappropriate, etc.

4. Centralization with Local Empowerment

Centralizing your online presence after the local marketing team has built a country or regional site can present organizational challenges. The local team should welcome the fact they won’t have to invest time and resources maintaining online infrastructure, however there will be a concern over loss of control and a legitimate need to be able to have control over local promotions, local activities and local content.

The worst possible outcome is that the new global site becomes the excuse for poor regional financial performance. This can be avoided if you involve the regional teams from the beginning of the project, if they provide input in the requirement gatherings phase and if the site is built to enable some degree of local control.

Most modern content management systems enable delegation features that make it easy to determine what parts of the site can be changes by regional teams and which ones should not. It is important to define these rules from the beginnig. For example, for brand consistency and IP protection, the global/corporate team should be defining global logo usage, site images, colors and overall brand image.

Local teams might have the ability to create certain number of pages, control local offers, maintain the local event calendar, promote local case studies, feature local press activities and influence the SEO strategy to include keywords relevant in a particular region. In other words, they could enjoy the benefits of a global site while still maintaining some level of autonomy and power to influence their local business.

All the decisions and points above have budget and process implications. How will they affect corp/local budget distribution? Who will pay for localization? what to do with existing web-aligned people in the regions? etc. No one said this would be easy.

5. Global Site as a Service and Governance.

This brings an interesting concept: The global online team as a service. For a central/global web team to be effective there needs to be an agreed SLA with the regions/subsidiaries and a defined process for capturing feedback and allowing them to participate in the definition of future development of new features and enhancements

Reciprocally, the local team must agree to abide by a set of agreed rules, made very clear in a policy document with specific enforcement controls, for aspects such as buying and using domains, social media participation, launching and maintaining tactical regional microsites, and probably most importantly, a customer data strategy, which brings us to the last point.

6. Customer Data and Privacy Strategy

In some countries, violation of privacy laws is punished severely and could result in people going to jail. In many global companies, a violation of the policy (creating a microsite around corp guidelines that allows customers to register or sending an email with an excel file with names and email addresses) results in immediate termination of the employee.

You probably have heard of the Google execs that went to jail for allowing an end-user to upload illegal content to YouTube in Italy, even after the video was taken down quickly after it was flagged. This is an extreme case, of course, the intention is not to scare you but to make you aware of the importance of the legal aspects one must consider, starting with privacy laws.

A basic set of guidelines will define what information should be captured, what re the guidelines for allowing people under age to register and what is considered ‘under age’ in each country, clear policies for handling PII (personally identifiable information) including how it should be stored (a central repository with encryption) and deletion, credit card information handling and PCI compliance, opt-in/opt-out, global unsubscribe and customer preferences.

It is a lot of work, yes. Is it easy? absolutely not. But it is certainly worthwhile. The Web is quickly becoming the most important customer interaction channel for all types of organizations – it already is for many. The good news? once you build a global online presence based on a solid strategy your company (and hopefully you) will enjoy its benefits for many years to come. I hope this posts helps you get there.


Web and Social Media Trends for 2010

With only a few weeks left in the year, this is a good time to think about what are the top trends that will impact the Web, social media and customer engagement.I have posted this on the Corporate Social Media strategist group on Linked In, but would appreciate any comments on my blog.

These are the trends I think will be important in 2010:

1. Content is set free and is continuously evolving. What started with RSS feeds continues to accelerate. Content will increasingly be syndicated, aggregated, tagged, rated, mashed-up, re-published, filtered and transformed. Technologies like REST APIs and open ID are enabling this trend.

2. Browsers are dead. Well, not really, but a browser-PC combination is no longer the main way people experience and interact with Web content. Mobile devices, car systems and other internet-enabled devices will continue to grow in importance.

3. Social media maturity. Organizations starts to see social media as a tool that supports a strategy, a new way to engage customers, employees and partners,  one that is fundamental to any  business and that becomes an integral part of your job. Twitter plateaus, new tools emerge but there is more consolidation.

4. Semantic Web. With so much content available online, tools that help find relevant content become more important: tagging, rating, filtering, recommendations, folksonomies, semantics. The focus needs to be on simplicity.

5. Key challenges need to be solved. Openess will result in a new focus on privacy and  giving people control of what and how their information is shared. New technologies introduce new security concerns: viruses, spoofing and hacking in social networks, authentication across multiple sites (passport was not a bad idea, after all), tiny URLs make it impossible to know where you are going before you get there. At the individual level trust and authority become more important, creating an opportunity for reputation management systems, badges, and federated identity.

This is just a starting point, and of course these things won’t happen in 2010 only: they have already started and will go on for some time.

What do you think? What am i missing? I look forward to your comments…



The Online Marketer’s Quest for Web Effectiveness

Online marketers, like most other professionals, are expected to do more with less – especially in challenging  economic times. Onlinemarketers are trying to find out how to increase Web site and campaign effectiveness, which can be measured in terms of unique visitors, click-throughs or leads. Marketers in eCommerce companies have a bit more focused goals, focusing on conversions and average order value, often acheved via up-selling and cross-selling.

Key to meeting these objectives is to ensure people visiting your Web site or receive email communications from your company are presented with the most useful information and the most powerful offers for them. In this quest of finding the best message, the best offer, the best banner ad, marketers have tried a number of different tools from personalization to analytics to a/b testing. It is easy to get too exited about these tools, but at the end of the day, it is critical to understand these are only tools to improve relevance.

Relevance is the key to Web site effectiveness. But how to make your messages more relevant? Most studies show Web site visitors have very limited patience: if they can’t find what they need in three clicks, they are gone. This means you have one or two chances to give each individual customer exactly what he or she is looking for: the product they want, the answer to the question they have, the information they need. This post aims to provide an overview of the tools available to increase relevance.

The first step is Analytics. You can’t improve what you can’t measure. Analytics can tell you how many people are visiting each page or consume each of the resources that you make available  on your site, what are the most common click-through paths, exit pages and many other useful data points. Unfortunately, most organizations don’t have the people or the time to properly study the analytics data to derive business insight and to act on this insight. maybe because it is hard to show ROI for these activities outside of media and online commerce.

One of my favorite phrases is “Your opinion (as a marketer), while interesting, is irrelevant“. No matter how smart you are, you can only guess what will be most attractive for your customers. therefore, one of the fundamental principles of marketing communications is to test everything. In this age it is inconceivable to run a banner ad without at least testing a few messages. Testing multiple messages takes very little effort and, in my experience, the results often surprise you. When testing 4 or 5 different banner ads, it is not uncommon to find a 5x difference in performance. The same applies to direct mail, email promotions, etc.

But testing banner ads and messages manually is very time consuming, although certainly worthwhile for large campaigns. This is where a/b testing comes in. A/B testing tools automate the process of presenting multiple offers to customers, sometimes based on a specific segment, reporting results in real time and adapting your site to use the message that proved to be most effective in tests.

MVT Testing take this concept further by testing multiple variables: message, color, position, offer, etc. – and all their possible permutations. MVTcan be incredibly powerful to fine-tune offers and promotions in any website. As good as they are, adoption of A/B and MVT tools has been very limited, mostly in eCommerce companies. As with analytics, resourcing is part of the problem.

A/B and MVT have their own challenges: First, it is still for the most part a manual process. Second, you could be testing all the wrong things – the process still requires someone to decide what messages or what elements to test. Last, these tools require some time to run (the more variables in play the longer it takes for MVT to produce statistically-valid results) and they are focused on past behavior.

This is where a new breed of tools come in: Content Recommendations, offered by companies like Vignette, Omniture, Loomia and others. While there are differences between how these products work, the fundamental premise is the same: to observe customer behavior, and to automatically determine what is the most relevant content, product or offer for a particular customer based on what similar customers have found to be useful.

A short story to illustrate: An architect builds an office complex with multiple buildings a parking garage, a cafeteria and other services.  The buildings open to the tenants but there are no concrete pathways between buildings, the architect has left all the open space covered in grass. After a few weeks, the paths that people take to go from one building to the other are clear from the wear in the grass. Over time, the grass is gone in these paths. The architect then paves thee paths with concrete. He did not try to guess which way people would walk. He observed and acted on actual behavior. Recommendation technologies pave the path between website visitors and the content they want.

Now a specific example: An online tax service is trying to make their website more useful. During tax season, many customers would go to their site and look for “Form 1099”. Traditional search tools would use a keyword-based algorithm to find the web pages and documents where the keyword “Form 1099” occurred more often. Instead, Recommendations technology observes that most visitors who type “form 1099” in the search box actually end up opening, downloading and printing a file called IRS1099-A.pdf and then spend some time in a page labeled “how to fill your tax return”, so it presents these two resources at the top of the search results, even though the keyword may not even appear i the actual page or file. This scenario is what is being called social search.

Another advantage of Recommendations is that it can adapt in almost real-time to changes. Imagine a celebrity appearing on TV on a Friday afternoon wearing some very chic aluminum sunglasses. Everyone who is watching the TV show wants to buy these sunglasses. The first visitors to your eCommerce site would have to navigate a bit to find the exact product, but after a few visitors buy the item, recommendations technology “paves” the way for other visitors, a process that could take minutes. Your analytics person or campaign marketer could be asleep or on vacation and recommendations technology has learned from customers  and adapted the site to show the now very hot item in the most prominent position.

As with any new technology, there are differences between the offerings from recommendation technology vendors. There are a couple key aspects to consider when evaluating them:

  • The observation technology – it can go from the very simple (clicks-based) to te very advanced (some measure over 30 heuristics).
  • The algorithm to determine what to recommend – some call it the wisdom of crowds engine
  • How similar visitors are grouped – behavioral segmentation and integration with your explicit profile data
  • Content database – how it is organized, categorized and updated as items become available or are retired
  • Presentation model – how the recommendations are integrated into your overall website experience

This is very exciting technology that is likely to produce big results for most web sites who implement the technology but more importantly for customers in general.

How to Use YouTube as a Marketing Tool

Marketing You Tube

There is no question about the importance of video as a key component of a marketing strategy.  We live in the age of the video-centric Web.


There are opportunities and dangers in using YouTube as a marketing tool.  First, it is important to understand the profile of the typical YouTube visitor. By looking at the most viewed videos, I think it is safe to assume most people spending time on YouTube are teens looking for entertainment – music videos, comedy or funny videos. This is not to say that is the only demographic using it.


The opportunity is to use YouTube as a distribution mechanism to fish for customers. The danger is in using it as your video platform. Let me explain:


There are a number of problems with embedding your own YouTube videos on your own Web site: Google may insert contextual advertising about your competitors and customers can click on the video to be taken to where they can get lost watching at Coke and Mentos videos, forgetting why they went to your site in the first place. In other words, you don’t control the experience. Any medium to large company probably is going to have to manage dozens or hundreds of videos, and you need a better way to manage those videos, to understand who and how they are viewed and to connect them with other resources on your site in a synergistic way.


You can’t do this with You Tube. You probably need a video platform that provides all these capabilities. You need to own your Video experience, because Video is as important as any content on your site.  This is why we built Vignette Video Services, to help companies who want to take control of their video strategy.  


The opportunity is to use YouTube as a channel to fish for customers. The ideal scenario is the opposite as what I described above: people go from YouTube to your site. Posting your content on YouTube to make it easy for people to find will probably increase your reach and viewership. What you need to accomplish is that at the end of the video customers don’t click on the funny video that Google is promoting but on your site because they need more information or they want to learn more.


At a minimum you should promote your site’s URL at the beginning and end of your video. you may want to create a series of videos and only make the first part of the series available on YouTube, customers would have to go to your site to get the rest of the story.


It is interesting that we live in the age of the video-centric Web, yet most of the industry is still learning how to use it. This tells me Video presents an opportunity to get ahead. It is an opportunity to build a strategy that gives you a competitive advantage.


The question is – what are you doing with Video?